Top 10 tips for dealing with picky eaters

The condition of picky eating is an all too common one. Having a child that won’t eat the food placed in front of them is a super stressful experience for parents to cope with as most worry daily about how much their kids are eating – or not eating in this case. This is especially true for moms who are usually the ones in charge of creating nutritional meals for their kids, only to have them thrown back in their face on a daily basis, quite literally, leading to feelings of frustration, shame and even anger!

What is a picky eater?
Picky eaters are children who may refuse to eat, play with their food, eat less than usual, dislike certain food groups, throw tantrums at mealtimes and refuse to try new foods. Disordered or extreme picky eaters accept only 20 or fewer foods and are often sensitive to the texture, temperature or colour of food.

Picky eating often surfaces around the child’s first birthday when many children are beginning to feed themselves and can now choose what they will and won’t eat and how much. Obviously this can be a satisfying feeling for your child as they relish the control over their own lives for a change.

Another reason why picky eating can surface at this age is that growth slows down in the second year and your child is learning lots of new skills, like talking, walking, running, climbing – and with all the changes they may decide to stick with “sameness” in one area – the food they eat – in order to feel safe and secure!

Parents also need to be more informed about just how much a child “should” eat. It’s important to note that a child’s stomach is approximately the same size as their clenched fist.

Something else to remember is that familiarity with foods is key for kids. Most children will be exposed to new foods more than 10 times before they will even try it. So don’t expect them to scoff down a plate of broccoli on the first go!!

Another point is that the typical picky eater isn’t often as picky as you think. If you were to write down all the foods your child eats in a day and/ or week you’d be amazed to see how much they “graze” and do in fact get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets over the course of a week. At the same time you might like to take note of your child’s food sensitivities and keep them in mind when preparing meals. For example: Does your child have trouble with “mushy” foods? Then offer apple slices instead of applesauce, or a baked potato instead of mashed. Or combine the “mushy” food with a crunchy food that they do like.

But feeding your child doesn’t have to be so frustrating, so until your child’s food preferences mature (which they will eventually!!), here are some tips on how to move past the power struggles with your picky eater and get to a place of peace around the table…

Top 10 tips for dealing with picky eaters

1. Never force your child to eat

This never works and usually means that the child eats less. Forcing also teaches children to rely on others to tell them how much to eat and they can become less sensitive to their own hunger and fullness cues which does not lead to healthy eating habits or good self-esteem in the long run. Your child might also come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration which is not what you want to encourage at all.

2. Never nag or make deals with your child around food

Don’t bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate eg. “Just two more bites, just two more bites!” Strategies like this won’t work in the long run as children who learn to make deals about eating will start to ask for rewards for doing other things — like brushing teeth or getting their shoes on leading to even more problems!! Also avoid offering dessert as a reward as that sends the message that dessert is the best food, which might only increase your child’s desire for sweets. You might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights, and skip dessert the rest of the week — or redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.

3. Stick to the routine

Kids like routine. If they know they will only get food at certain times, they’ll eat what they get when they get it so serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. Don’t give your children drinks at the table. Milk, juice and water can fill up their tummies and lead them to eat less food at meal times. Rather offer drinks between meals and limit drinks and snacks from about an hour before meal times as allowing your child to fill up on juice, milk or snacks throughout the day might decrease their appetite for real food. Try to have healthy snacks that taste good but are also nutritionally beneficial and incorporate two food groups eg. cheese and whole-grain crackers or apple slices with cottage cheese.

4. Keep things simple, small and short

Avoid overwhelming your child with too much on their plate, rather give them the opportunity to independently ask for more. Offer simple, healthy finger foods which they can feed themselves. Keep mealtimes short – about 10 minutes.

5. Be creative and make food fun

Talk about a food’s colour, shape, smell and texture — not whether it tastes good. Serve new foods along with your child’s favorite foods. Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner. Serve a variety of brightly coloured foods in a pattern or picure on their plate and encourage kids to “eat their colours.” This game works well with younger kids and is great because eating a variety of brightly coloured foods provides more nutrients in greater variety.

6. Recruit your child’s help

Getting your child involved in the process of buying and making their food might help them feel a part of the experience. At the shops, ask your child to help you select the fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table. You can also let your child decide where foods go on their plate and even dish up their own plate. Or if they are still very young give them a spoon to hold while you’re feeding them as this makes them feel more in control! If they feel some ownership over the meal, they may be more likely to eat it.

7. Set a good example

Where possible eat around a table as a family so your children can see you trying new foods and be encouraged to do the same. The best way to influence kids is by example so avoid showing disgust or disinterest when trying new foods… and don’t expect them to eat spinach if you won’t touch it! If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit. It’s also best to try to move your child onto your menu as soon as possible. Avoid preparing a separate meal for your child, especially if they have rejected the original meal, as this might promote picky eating. Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime — even if they don’t want to eat. Eating as a family is a great time to catch up and reconnect each day.

8. Minimize distractions

Don’t eat in front of the TV, iPad or other electronic gadgets (This includes YOU Mom and Dad! You need to set a good example too) This will help your child focus on eating. Keep in mind that television advertising might also encourage your child to desire sugary or less nutritious foods.

9. Don’t cut out treats completely

Obviously the aim is to be feeding your kids healthy food but a scoop of ice cream or sweet biscuit is all right occasionally. Unfortunately if you cut out all treats your kids will be more likely to overeat them when they do get them, just make sure to moderate the treat consumption. An idea might be to introduce healthier elements into foods that your child already likes. For example, offer blueberry pancakes, carrot muffins, fruit slices over a favorite cereal or yoghurt – teach them that treats don’t have to always come in brightly coloured packets, but can be from the fruit aisle too!

10. Don’t give up!

Young children often touch or smell new foods, and might even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Don’t stress out about this, your child might need repeated exposure to a new food before he or she takes the first bite.

Remember that your child’s eating habits won’t change overnight — but every small step you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating, so keep serving your child healthy choices until they become more familiar with health food choices.

pediasure complete

And if all these tips fail and you’re still fighting the frustrating fight of getting food and essential nutrients into your child each day then you may like to opt for a nutritional supplement such as PediaSure Complete which has been scientifically-proven as a complete and balanced meal supplement for the picky or fussy eater in order to help kids develop, grown and thrive even when they aren’t eating well! Pediasure ensures that children who are fussy eaters receive the nutritional support they need to grow and develop normally, while giving moms complete peace of mind that their child’s nutritional requirements have been attended to.

pediasure complete drink

If you’re concerned that picky eating is compromising your child’s growth and development, consult your child’s doctor.

For further information on how to deal with picky eaters visit this very useful website:

If you’ve overcome picky eating in your family please do leave a comment below on what worked for you or share your tip on social media using the hashtag #momsshareatip. I’d love to hear from you… as would other moms of picky eaters too!!

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This post is sponsored by PediaSure®Complete and Abbott Nutrition, a division of Abbott Laboratories, a multi-national pharmaceutical. In South Africa, they distribute a range of nutritional drinks (which can be used as supplements or meal replacements) including Ensure and PediaSure Complete. Topics might have been suggested but all ideas and content (excl photos) are my own. The comments on this page do not constitute medical advice. If you’re concerned that picky eating is compromising your child’s growth and development, please consult your child’s doctor or a healthcare professional who is best placed to evaluate your child’s growth and development. Should you have any concerns or questions, please seek advice from your healthcare professional? For product-related questions, contact the Abbott Nutrition Support Line on 0861 22 68 87.

Kathryn Rossiter

Kathryn is a South African lifestyle blogger and mom of 2 who has been blogging daily for over 9 years! She writes about travel, health, beauty, fashion, decor and family... but not food (unless it's food she's eaten made by someone else) as she is a hopeless cook. She only wakes up early for 2 things... a red-eye flight to somewhere exotic and early morning game drives. She has just finished an extensive home renovation and would prefer to never see another box again. She's never met a chocolate or glass of bubbles that she didn't like!

1 Comment
  1. My daughter is such a picky eater. She doesn’t eat most things that I had thought she would actually like. She basically lives off of fruit, yogurt, rice crackers and eggs lol oh and slap chips. She doesn’t want meat unless it’s biltong. And not even yummy mash potatoes and stuff. But we have kinda gotten used to it. Yesterday we made a brake through and she had a bite of baby marrow. I don’t force her to eat things she doesn’t want, I rather try make it look fun when I’m eating it so she thinks it’s good to try.

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